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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

West Virginia Mountain Top Mining Controversy

Air Date: Week of

John Gregory reports from Logan County, West Virginia where the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has approved a request for Arch Coal to mine over three-thousand acres of land in the mountain top mining extraction technique. The method may be easier for the company, but some citizens say the potential environmental damage outweighs both the energy wrought and the local coal jobs. Federal agencies must also give their approval before the excavation in this controversial mining method can proceed.


CURWOOD: The mountains of southern West Virginia have been the site of intense conflicts over the years. Take for example the infamous Hatfield and McCoy feuds, or the battles were coal miners fought to establish unions. Well, now coal is at the heart of a new conflict in West Virginia. The fight is over mountain top removal. That's a strip mining operation that levels mountains and digs away vast expanses of dirt and rock to expose the underlying seams of coal. The method is generally easier and cheaper than pit mining. Coal executives say mountain top removal provides thousands of jobs and millions of tax dollars. It is also, they say, an economical way of meeting the nation's energy needs, as more than half the electricity generated in the US comes from coal. But other folks say mountain top removal comes at too high a cost to the landscape, water, and quality of rural life. John Gregory reports.

(A water stream)

GREGORY: Pigeon Roost Branch flows through a narrow mountain valley of Logan County, West Virginia. Its banks are lined with the lush vegetation of the hardwood forest that makes even this hot, dry fall afternoon seem cool and pleasant. Retired coal miner James Weekly was born and raised in this valley, or holler, as he calls it. He's fished in the creek, hunted deer, grouse, and wild hog in the woods, and dug for ginseng along the hillsides.

WEEKLY: My dad give me this property here. I was 11 years old and he said, "Son, which property do you want here?" I said, "I want the old home pipes down there, Dad." He said, "It's yours."

GREGORY: Mr. Weekly eventually built his home along Pigeon Roost Branch. From his front porch he can admire his wife's rose garden and listen to the stream and the whippoorwills. He can also hear and feel the blasting at the massive Dal-tex Mountain Top Removal Coal Mine about a mile away. James Weekly claims the explosions have cracked the walls in his 10-year-old house.

WEEKLY: Looky here. Above the door, over there. Over there all the way down. There. Over beyond in that corner. Over across. Over that door. It's every room like this.

GREGORY: Mr. Weekly, along with several neighbors and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, have sued state and Federal regulators over mountain top removal. They say the practice destroys mountain and forest land and ruins water quality in streams. While the blasting, noise, and dust from the mines forces neighboring residents from their homes. James Weekly points to his own community of Blair, which is located adjacent to the Dal-tex mine. He says it once had several hundred houses. Now all that remains is about 70 homes among a landscape of empty lots.

WEEKLY: Once these communities are gone, they're gone. They're not going to come back. And that's exactly what's happened to Blair, Drum Creek, Island Creek up there. That's not right.

GREGORY: Surface mines, including mountain top removal sites, aren't new to West Virginia, but they are increasing. This region has abundant reserves of the low-sulfur coal prized by electric utilities trying to meet the pollution standards of the Clean Air Act. That demand, coupled with new equipment, has seen coal recovered by surface mining in West Virginia double in the last 5 years.

(Trains running)

GREGORY: At the entrance to the Hobet-21 Mine in Boone County, 2 trains rattle past the coal-loading facility there, one filled with coal heading north to a power plant, the second waiting to be loaded with the black rock. The Hobet complex covers some 35,000 acres with a series of surface and deep mines. In mountain top removal the mining process begins when the trees and vegetation are cut from the mountain slopes. Then the first layer of rock is blasted with a mixture of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel. That loose rock, or spoil, is scraped away to reveal the first seam of coal. The coal is removed and the process is repeated, continuing down as much as 300-400 feet through the mountainside. With each new layer the scale of the equipment gets bigger. At the Hobet Mine the heaviest lifting is done by a drag line so large it has its own nickname.

(Machinery noise)

This is Big John, a massive piece of earth-moving machinery. The body housing the mechanical parts of the drag line is 80 feet high. The boom arm supporting the bucket is 300 feet long, the length of a football field. That arm has the bucket that scoops up the rock. The entire machine turns 90 degrees and the rock is dumped onto an adjoining hillside of overburden.

(Noise continues)

GREGORY: The drag line uncovers the horizontal seams of coal that are buried in the ridge lines. For every 15 tons of rock the drag line removes, the company hopes to recover 1 ton of coal. Steve Stone is the operator of Big John on this shift. Sitting at the controls of the $24 million machine, it takes Mr. Stone less than a minute to pick up 100 tons of rock and deposit it off to the side.

STONE: I'm just reforming the land a little bit, making it better for people to use. Plus in the meantime, we're getting energy out of it to keep us warm in the winter time.

GREGORY: As expensive and expansive as the process is, company officials say mountain top removal is crucial to mining in Appalachia. David Todd is Vice President for St. Louis-based Arch Coal Company, which owns the Hobet Mine. Arch is just one of several companies doing mountain top removal in the region. The native West Virginian says much of this coal could not be recovered using other forms of surface mining or traditional deep mines.

TODD: Over time the easiest and thicker seams have already been mined, so as the recovery techniques progress, we find ourselves requiring larger equipment to economically develop the coal.

GREGORY: Throughout the mining process, the excess rock is distributed along adjacent ridges, dumped into nearby valleys, or kept at the site to approximate the original contour. Holding ponds are built to regulate water runoff and provide wetlands habitat, while the land is planted with grasses and trees. At the Hobet Mine, General Manager John Low points to the gentle terracing of the landscape that was created on the mine land.

LOW: And in the initial reclamation process, we try to break the terrain up for the wildlife, to give the wildlife an area to get into the heart [word?], until the rest of the reclamation, the rest of the trees and the shrubs starts growing up.

GREGORY: While the Hobet reclamation has been praised by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the grassy savannahs stand in stark contrast to the verdant mountain ridges in the distance. Arch Coal's David Todd acknowledges that mining does dramatically change the landscape. But he says the coal is dug in compliance with the law.

TODD: Ultimately, the test is: is the environment being protected? The test is not: do I like coal mining? Do I like a particular technique of coal mining? So by objective standards, one can only conclude that this kind of mining does result in the protection of the environment and does result in the extraction of a resource that is vital to the nation and to the competitiveness of this nation.

TIBBETT: When you're on the ground, you're surrounded by a landscape that's totally different from anything you've ever seen.

GREGORY: United States Fish and Wildlife Service specialist Cindy Tibbett has inspected mountain top removal sites in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. She says scientists are only now beginning to study the potential long-term environmental effects of the mining and reclamation practices.

TIBBETT: As a biologist, you are struck with the contrast between what is left after reclamation, which is usually a herbaceous grass-like community, to the hardwood forest that was there before. And it strikes you that we've really made quite a tradeoff in terms of wildlife species that we're supporting in those 2 different kinds of habitat.

GREGORY: Cindy Tibbett says an estimated 470 miles of streams in West Virginia have been covered with spoil from mining operations. An exact number is hard to determine because of the state's disorganized record keeping. She says covering a few miles of streams here and there may not seem like a problem, but the cumulative effects of deforestation, mining, and filling valleys could be devastating.

TIBBETT: Every stream, especially in the headwater reaches, is a product of the landscape around it. The vegetation, the geology. Once you erase all of that, the biota, even in the downstream areas, will change dramatically in response to the loss of all of that productive watershed.

GREGORY: Facing increased criticism, West Virginia Governor Cecil Underwood formed a task force earlier this year to get public input on potential changes to mining regulations.

(People milling)

MAN(through a microphone): Could I have your attention please?

GREGORY: At a recent meeting of the group, miners, environmentalists, industry officials, and local citizens crammed into the auditorium of the Chambersburg Middle School. All under the watchful eye of several state police officers. Changing the industry is a sensitive issue in the mountain state. Coal companies pay more than $180 million in severance taxes in West Virginia, and the 21,000 people they employ receive an average salary of $49,000, which is more than double the average salary earned in this state.

MAN: Coal is king in Logan County, and if we don't fight for coal, there's going to be a problem down the road when there's no money to fund these schools and other services that this county provides.

(Audience applause)

MAN 2: I've already paid $34,000 deductions out of my payday this year. If we shut down, I will leave the state of West Virginia. I will go where I can make some money. Is that what Logan County wants? Do you want to run us out?

MAN 3: Everybody seems to want to talk about money tonight. I want to talk about the effects of these huge operations on communities. Is it worth it to you now to give up your homes, to have your families afraid to walk down the road, afraid that a coal truck's going to run over them? To me it's not worth it.

(Audience applause)

GREGORY: Fear seems to be a part of life in the coal fields these days. Fear of the environmental and cultural damage the mines bring, and fear of losing the few good-paying jobs that exist in these rural communities, like Logan, population 2,200.

(A motor revs)

GREGORY: The narrow streets of the town are laid out in a tight valley along the Guyandot River. Businesses here have lived and died on the black rock ever since the coal boom in the 1920s, when 120,000 men worked in the mines. Even though coal employs far fewer people today, the regional economy still depends on those incomes.

PRICE: Probably about 40% of our business is related to the coal industry.

GREGORY: Randall Price manages the Helig-Meyers Furniture Store in Logan. The son of a retired coal miner, Mr. Price says the community may eventually have to deal with changes to the coal industry.

PRICE: There is fear, because, you know, they've relied on it for hundreds of years, you know, in the coal industry. And you know, you have a major coal company shutdown or a layoff people, then people do panic somewhat.

GREGORY: Just down the street, in the Company Store Antiques Shop, Sharon Hopkins has stopped in to talk with a friend. Ms. Hopkins worked for a coal company in the 1970s and now sells real estate. She says business is slow because many people have already left Logan and few people move in because there are so few jobs. Aside from the mines, the only other major employer in town is the hospital, which has about 1,000 workers.

HOPKINS: And we do need mountain top removal, especially here in this area, because our life depends on it. I mean, if this discontinues and the mines are shut down, then, I mean, this town here, you might as well just close everybody's doors and forget business, because there will be no business here. It'll be a ghost town.

GREGORY: Many local citizens criticize state officials for not bringing more industrial development to the area. A new 4-lane highway does connect the region to the state capitol of Charleston, and some local entrepreneurs are trying to foster tourism based on a network of all-terrain vehicle trails, many of them on reclaimed mine lands.

HECHLER: We've got to diversify and not depend on this most destructive form of mining that hurts human beings, that pollutes the air and the water and the politics of West Virginia.

GREGORY: Former Congressman and current West Virginia Secretary of State Ken Hechler is one of the few government officials to publicly oppose mountain top removal. He blames Governor Cecil Underwood for many of the current problems caused by mining. The governor is a former coal industry executive, and he recently signed controversial legislation making it easier for coal companies to cover streams and fill valleys with excess rock. Governor Underwood also appointed another former coal executive to head the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Secretary of State Hechler has taken his crusade against the mines to rallies and public hearings where he likes to sing his own version of an old John Denver song.

HECKLER (singing): Almost level, West Virginia, sheared-off mountains dumped into our rivers...

GREGORY: The perception that the industry is leveling the state has been pushed by activists and popularized by the media. It's an image that draws fire from company officials like Arch Coal's David Todd.

TODD: That is simply pejorative, misleading kind of commentary. Less than 1% of the land in West Virginia has been affected by large-scale surface mining.

HECKLER (singing): Please help save what is left.

GREGORY: Some regulators, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, are slowing or even suspending approval of new mining permits until they can do further study on the effects of mountain top removal. Todd fears these delays could severely damage the coal industry in the state. He says Arch Coal and the other companies mining in West Virginia, along with their investors and employees, depend on operations being able to continue without interruption.


MAN: We've got to go up this big rock here, don't miscue.

GREGORY: Back on Pigeon Roost Branch, James Weekly drives his 4-wheel all- terrain vehicle up the steep mountainside behind his house, his thin frame bouncing on the seat of the bike as it careens about. At the top of the ridge, Mr. Weekly kills the motor and walks over to a sandstone rock outcropping under a huge oak tree.

WEEKLY: This is what I call my meditating rock. I get disgusted, this is where I come to.

GREGORY: The spot offers a breathtaking view of the entire Spruce River Valley. To the east and south the forested ridges ripple to the horizon. To the north and west is the massive Dal-tex Mine with its giant machinery digging coal and reshaping the landscape.

(Distant machinery)

GREGORY: During his own years in mining and in logging, James Weekly admits he didn't think much about the environment. It's only when he saw the effects of mountain top removal on his own community, the noise, the blasting, the dust, that he started to take notice.

WEEKLY: I've listened to this continuously, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. And I'll be out there as long as God gives me the breath to open my mouth, I'm fighting this.

GREGORY: Mr. Weekly may not find peace at his meditation spot too much longer, though. Dal-tex has applied for a permit to expand its mountain top removal operation to this ridge and the others surrounding James Weekly's home. If approved, the 3,100-acre mine would be the largest single mine ever permitted in the state. And just a taste of things to come. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in Logan County, West Virginia.

CURWOOD: The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has approved Arch Coal's request for a 3,100-acre mining permit. The state's environmental chief said he felt compelled to issue the permit in the wake of Arch Coal's threat to lay off 400 miners if the permit action continued to be delayed. But the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers must still give their approval before mining on the site can begin.



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